Amid little anticipation and less expectation, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday, 17 February, briefed the Security Council on the progress of the initiative he unveiled last year to ‘freeze’ the conflict that has destroyed the country, extinguished perhaps 1 per cent of its population and displaced more than a quarter of the remainder. It would be an exaggeration to say that hubris has given way to humility, but his performance this week was considerably more subdued than four months ago, shortly before I resigned from his office within weeks of arriving.
De Mistura wasn’t admitting to failure: he assured the Security Council and then the UN press corps that he had obtained a commitment from President Bashar Assad to suspend aerial and artillery bombardments of Aleppo for a period of six weeks at some point in the near future. But the comparative absence of grandiloquence primarily reflects a scaling down of ambition. When De Mistura initially proposed his ‘plan of action’ to the Security Council on 30 October 2014, the envisaged ceasefire-with-a-strange-name was to encompass at least all of Aleppo, be replicated elsewhere and, in combination with various humanitarian, administrative and political initiatives, transform the conflict and lay the basis for a new and improved political process. By 17 February 2015 this had been condensed to a temporary suspension of bombardments within city limits, a proposed and yet-to-be negotiated cessation of hostilities in just one of Aleppo’s neighbourhoods, and boilerplate about the need for a political solution through an unspecified ‘enlarged [UN] initiative’. It seems that salvaging the mission is De Mistura’s priority.
It had been a week that left him with much to salvage. In Syria on 11 February, when dozens of people were killed by government air strikes in the Damascus suburb of Douma and other areas within earshot of his hotel, De Mistura went to a party at the Iranian embassy. Two days later (Friday the 13th) he told the Viennese press that Assad personally ‘is part of the solution’ to the Syrian Crisis. His office quickly clarified that he meant only that the Aleppo freeze could not be implemented without negotiating with the government. Then the opposition National Coalition said that De Mistura had informed its leader, Khaled Khoja, that the real purpose of his comment was to ‘entrap Assad’ in a political process, though how this would work remains a mystery. Having already outraged the opposition, for good measure he drew the ire of the government when he contritely informed the Security Council that ‘we know how press statements can go when one’s defences are down’ and assured its members – twice – that his comments were related solely to his efforts to ‘reduce violence’.
With widespread scepticism that De Mistura will achieve anything in Aleppo, the more pertinent question is whether his ‘freeze’ in its present form retains much relevance, particularly when measured against other initiatives such as the Russian and Egyptian effort to promote direct political engagement between the Syrian government and opposition elements. To call it a sideshow is perhaps too kind, yet this is the reason – unless he manages to further alienate those on whose co-operation he depends – he may well be able to announce that for six weeks Aleppo's residents can savour being shot rather than bombed.
When De Mistura first proposed his initiative, he called it a ‘freeze’ because it would differ from many previous local ceasefires in Syria by leaving armed opposition factions in place and in control. Promoting a ‘reduction’ rather than cessation of hostilities, it would nevertheless open the way to humanitarian aid and permit the return of displaced residents, and more generally enable the restoration of normal civilian life and public administration. Neither ‘an end in itself’ nor a substitute for a ‘meaningful national political process’, the freeze would be a ‘credible alternative to the conflict’ and a ‘building block towards an overarching political horizon’. Less persuasively, it assumed that government and opposition had a greater commitment to fighting an ascendant Islamic State movement than each other.
Precious little remains of this disjointed but at least aspirational agenda. The temporary suspension of bombardment now being touted by the UN envoy is indeed ‘an end in itself’. It is certainly true that more capable diplomats have tried and failed to address this almost incomprehensibly complex conflict, but they elected to resign rather than preside over the systematic reduction of their agenda to a gimmick. Speaking to al-Jazeera he offered only that 'I have a terrible chronic disease which I've been trying to treat for many years... It is chronic optimism.'
‘I don’t want to stay in your image as Mr Freeze,’ De Mistura implored the Security Council. At this rate, he will be lucky if he does.